I prepared this class by reading all 91 quotes of 'tea' in Proust's work. Something struck me as I read these excerpts again: each mention of 'tea' had a deep meaning concerning the 3 main themes of the book:
1. The social world,
3. The arts.
1. Tea is at the center of the social life of Proust, because a lot of the social gatherings he describes happen during afternoon teas. These tea parties in France's high society of aristocrats and rich merchants were strongly inspired by the British royal tea traditions. On two occasions, through Odette, a 'cocotte', Proust even uses the English word 'tea' instead of 'thé' to make this point crystal clear. So, in many instances, tea doesn't refer to the leaves or the beverage, but to the social gathering. It takes place in the afternoon, at 5 o'clock and lasts until the tea ware is gathered and taken away by the servants.
People who try to have an influence on the social world have their own tea day, which means that their tea party takes place the same day of the week almost all year long (except for summer vacation or holidays). Your social prestige is measured by the teas you are able to get invited to, and the people you manage to attract to your own tea parties. Talking about the Ritz, Proust says that anyone who has money can go there, but only those who are invited get to attend the most prestigious teas. He describes this perfectly when he talks about Mme Verdurin's behavior. She sometimes attends boring and cumbersome tea parties with the unique goal to meet and invite a prestigious guest. Proust also notes that once he'd been invited to a tea by the noble and respected Guermantes duchess, he easily got invited to other parties, for no other reason than by imitation and not because he particularly deserved it. But tea parties could also measure your demise, as the actress La Berma experienced in the last book. When only one person responded favorably to her invitation, while the rest of her acquaintances preferred to see her rival at another tea gathering, it literally broke her heart and she died thereafter!
These tea gatherings show that in the France of the early twentieth century, tea had a much higher status than coffee or wine. He even lets his mother say that coffee is tasteless! And while there are a few positive mentions of champagne, he also notes that 'tea is preferable to gin for the skin'. However, he's also aware that tea contains caffeine and that it might make it difficult to fall asleep if you drink it late in the day.
2. Tea also helps us to better understand how Proust viewed love.
In Swann's Way, we can see that Odette uses her daily tea appointment with Swann to seduce him. The tea becomes his habit, his pleasure and Swann ends up marrying Odette even though he doesn't love her anymore. He's just to used to her serving him a perfect cup of tea, like one is used to a luxurious life. The narrator will try the same strategy to keep Albertine by his side in 'The Prisoner', providing expensive gifts, beautiful cloths..., not because he's in love, but because he doesn't want to feel jealous when she's away. So, tea is part of this luxurious lifestyle that can be used to charm and keep someone attached to you.
On the other hand, it's interesting to notice that the young narrator doesn't mention tea in the book 'Within a budding grove' when he meets and falls in love with Albertine and the other young girls in Balbec. These girls represent the innocence of youth and have an independent spirit, so tea would be out of place with them. However, tea was part of Gilberte's life, Odette and Swann's daughter and his first crush. So, tea helps us to understand who has a high or a low social status among the girls the narrator meets and falls in love with.
3. The whole book is full with references to art and we can see that the narrator has a real appreciation for paintings, music, books... At the end of the Search, we come to understand that for Proust, turning your memories into art (a book, a music or a painting...) is a way to attain eternity, because the same moment, the same feeling can be lived again and again. His first experience of such a reminiscence comes from a madeleine that he ate with some tea. The combined flavors of the brew and cookie recreated the environment he grew up in his childhood. This 'madeleine and tea' experience is of such central importance in the book that the narrator brings it up on several occasions. That's how he starts to link his memories with a desire to create art in order to preserve these memories. His 'search' is to find a way to preserve the time that flies away. For a long time, he pursued an idle life of pleasures, but one days he figures out that he has to write this book in order to preserve all his memories and gain a feeling of eternity. The memories were buried deep in himself. Tea was just a way to access them and enable him to turn them into literature!